Is the sexism displayed on the TV show Mad Men even close to accurate? Played up? Toned down even?
August 14, 2011 10:07 PM   Subscribe

Is the sexism displayed on the TV show Mad Men even close to accurate? Played up? Toned down even?

Extra credit question: can we go back in time and slap a bunch of dudes around?

The sensible part of me wants to give the era the benefit of the doubt and hope that the leering and brazen come-ons are all amplified to make for good drama, but then I am also just barely old enough to remember the struggle women went thru in the 1970s which really wasn't all that long ago if you think about it.

So yeah this is all pretty 2007filter, but me and my sweetie are rewatching the whole series and the sexist craziness is really making me wonder.

Was anyone here there? Conscious at the time? Was the world really this full of lotharios?
posted by Senor Cardgage to Media & Arts (77 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a little young for the early for the early '60s, but I know women who WERE there - and who can't watch the show because it hits too close to home, and they don't want to be reminded of that era.

By all reports, it's accurate , and things really were that jaw-droppingly awful.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 10:30 PM on August 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

What do you mean 'back then?' I started in the ad industry in 1995 (I was Peggy Olsen, if you want a job description/type) and I was trotted out to clients as our 'token girl'. Yes, they used to refer to me that way in conversation in client meetings. Then when one big client took a liking to me, I got told to sleep with him and do what it took to 'keep him happy.' 1995. I kid you not. Things haven't changed that much.
posted by Jubey at 10:35 PM on August 14, 2011 [38 favorites]

I started working in the 70s, and "struggles" is a bit over-wrought. The job market and the economy were terrible for just about everone.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:38 PM on August 14, 2011

I worked for a government agency in the economic development field for several years. We were located in a downtown office tower on the same floor as several other agencies and associations in the same community. Our floor was known in this community as "the floor of beautiful women." Although the CEO that hired me got fired for (in part) sexual harassment, there was still a lot of subtle harassment going on. The CEO's replacement brought some of his own staff along, including a young woman whom he dominated psychologically. She eventually got pregnant to escape. This was... well it was now.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:41 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Of course some are sexist depictions are tweaked for dramatic impact, but the overall culture of sexism in the U.S. generally and on Madison Avenue specifically come from a deep well of factual history. If you're interested, you might want to read some on the history of second-wave feminism, which discussed and worked to combat gender inequalities from post-WWII through the early 1980s.
posted by asciident at 11:23 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Toned down in scope if nothing else. A TV show only includes a limited number of characters, even on the "random coworker extra" periphery. In real life, there would be many more individuals, with their own versions of 'normal behavior toward women,' with whom one would interact occasionally.
posted by desuetude at 11:26 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think there's been a fair bit of "leering and brazen come-ons" in every situation in every society in every period in history and always will be. To single out 60's America as particularly egregious seems unfair.
posted by joannemullen at 11:58 PM on August 14, 2011

The boss character in 9 to 5 was sexist, and this film was released in 1980, twenty years after Mad Men is set, roughly speaking.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:07 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

To single out 60's America as particularly egregious seems unfair.

Of course sexism still exists in the workplace, but to gloss over the substantially different social status of working women 50 years ago, especially in the context of having virtually no legal protections in the workplace, seems either naive or revisionist.
posted by scody at 1:13 AM on August 15, 2011 [39 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not a regular Mad Men viewer, but I worked in the advertising department of a Fortune 500 auto supplier beginning in 1976 (at the age of 16, I was a high school co-op but worked full-time during the summer). It was seemingly a daily challenge to see how the guys could embarrass me the most; I remember finding a front-desk call-bell shaped like a woman's breast in my desk drawer one day, and on another occasion my boss greeted me wearing a pear of Groucho glasses that had a penis instead of a nose. There was no one to complain to; this was all Business As Usual and "sexual harrassment" hadn't yet been coined as a popular phrase (or concept). The guys in my department were just the tip of the iceberg; the other executives (we seemed to have a zillion vice presidents - purchasing, proposal, engineering, etc) frequently smacked me on the backside as they passed me in the hall (as they did to most of the other women). If I objected all I got was a cynical "Aw, are you one of those ball-busting women's libbers??" These men, whether they be paunchy or balding or overall disgusting, never hesitated to comment on the female employees' appearance...."Did you run out of blusher or something? You look like hell." I got a curly perm in 1979 and was told by my supervisor that an executive had seen me and said that I "looked like a n-word" now and to do something about my hair. (The company had five divisions across several states, but had not one African-American employee nor any female in a management or supervisory position. I was always told that this was possible because the company was privately held.)

Liquor flowed freely during the day and after hours (mainly for the men, but women were often invited to join them in the various conference rooms after 5:00 to tip a few - each conference room had a fully stocked bar) and it seemed like everyone smoked - at their desks, in the hallways, wherever. I was laid off from that company in 1981, during a serious recession in the auto industry. Why did I stay for over five years? Well, it was my first job and I really didn't know any better. It also paid better than food service or retail, I wasn't on my feet all day or over a hot grill, and we had Gold Card health benefits. To tell the truth, though, I didn't really realize how badly I'd been treated until maybe four or five years after I left when suddenly there were newspaper stories and TV movies and lawsuits about sexual harrassment in the workplace. Suddenly the men in every subsequent company I worked at, no matter how small, tread very carefully because the boss didn't want the expense of any lawsuits.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:19 AM on August 15, 2011 [46 favorites]

Federal service, Australia, 1973. If this is what you got away with in a government publication, imagine what the real deal was like.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:42 AM on August 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

Can't speak to the US in that era, but a few years ago we had a party at my work - a New Zealand bank - for one of the staff who'd been there 40 years, starting in the mid-60s. At that time she required her father's permission to have a job at the bank, despite being, you know, an adult and stuff.
posted by rodgerd at 2:57 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

(And my wife's grandfather died last week; he'd been a senior government official from the late 60s, working at the level of developing legislation. A former colleague came to the funeral to speak on behalf of his area, noting that when she interviewed in 1970 to be the head of the Dunedin office, she'd been made an offer, but only discovered some years later that when it had been suggested that, as was routinely the norm, she be paid at the rate of 50% of her male counterparts, my grandfather-in-law had blocked the suggestion and ensured she was paid at the full rate; this was considered a stunning departure from the norm.)
posted by rodgerd at 3:00 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Now that I think about it, a few other anecdotes; when I worked in the papers in the 90s, some of the older guys reminisced about the "good old days" of the 70s; one of the highlights for a few of them had been when a woman in the press room got trollied and had the guys line up to take a turn. And when I started contracting to banks at the turn of the century there were plenty of stories about the 80s and early 90s around punch-ups (unpunished), finishing up at lunch-time and spending the rest of the day in the pub, and so on and so forth.
posted by rodgerd at 3:03 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Toned down, if anything. As others say above, this kind of behavior was common then & for decades later, and still exists (in milder forms, admittedly) in too many situations. The butt-slapping and such only toned down because lawsuits started succeeding; otherwise, they saw nothing wrong with the behavior. Heck, "feminist" all too often was considered a synonym for "lesbian", and 'all those uppity women REALLY needed was a good screw!'

My first job was in retail in the early '70s: all 'girls' were hired as salesclerks, at about 2/3 the salary of similarly-inexperienced 'men' hired as stockclerks. In the early '80s, I worked in the accounting department of a large corporation: of approximately 150 employees in the department, the only four men were in the top four jobs. And on and on. In 1984 I joined a union that just accepted it's first female member in 1983; if they legally could have, quite a few of the members would have blocked us from taking 'a man's job' --- after all, girls (NOT 'women') were only going to get married & waste all their training, plus men (NEVER 'boys'!) had families to support, whereas the girls didn't really need to work & and were only doing it to get out and find a husband.

Yup, toned down.
posted by easily confused at 4:18 AM on August 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

1966 - parents wanted to buy a house in CA and struggled to find a mortgage company that would even consider my mother's income in granting the mortgage. She made more than my dad at the time and it was assumed it was a temporary whim for her and she would surely quit to raise babies at any moment.
posted by cecic at 5:03 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remember the '60s very well, and I agree with easily confused: Toned down, if anything. If you came of age after the rebirth of feminism, you probably don't have any idea how bad it was, but reading some feminist classics (and watching Mad Men) will help. Just try to avoid the automatic "Come on, it can't have been that bad!" reflex. It was.

> To single out 60's America as particularly egregious seems unfair.

No, it's not: what scody said.
posted by languagehat at 5:30 AM on August 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is a very similar question, although broader than this one. There are even some folks who respond that suggest that women got "asymmetrical" perks to compensate for the sexism.
posted by OmieWise at 5:33 AM on August 15, 2011

I was nonexistent at the time frame that Mad Men began and still pretty wee at the end of the sixties, but in the early seventies I was a precocious little kid who read everything. Just at the far edge of my recollection is an era where I would read the classifieds -- no, I was not looking for a job after kindergarten, but I read everything I saw -- and see that there were separate help wanted ads for "men" and "girls."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:10 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

According to the New Yorker, this is very much what Silvio Berlusconi's Italy is like today, so I'm not sure why it's so hard to buy the US was like that over 40 years ago.

Anecdotally, my mother was born in 1944. Her fondest dream growing up was to become an archaeologist, but she was repeatedly told to forget about it - her career choices were mother, nurse, or (possibly) school librarian.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:46 AM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Strangely enough, I emailed this exact question to my mother last night. She's a bit too young for the early sixties, but here is what she had to say.
It really was like that in the 60s. There is certainly the 'good old boys' attitude still around. It's not quite like it was shown in Mad Men, but women are still excluded from some of the highest decision-making groups in corporations...often because the men have their important meetings in a strip club or such things. Not that women can't go to the strip clubs with the guys, but we generally have more class than that, and so we get left out often. It more prevalent in sales organizations for sure. Did I ever tell you my story about the "Gold Club" in Atlanta? We should chat.

I personally missed out on a promotion once because they found out I was pregnant. That was 1977. And Aunt Ann used to work for a guy who made no secret of the fact that he paid women less than men for the same job...even though that's technically illegal. He would actually tell her she was being paid less because she had a husband and wasn't the main 'breadwinner' in the family, can you believe that shit?

As for all the office sex, I don't see any woman putting up with that these days. And most men are properly informed of the legal risk to their company if they get sued so it shouldn't be happening.
So basically, it echoes some of the sentiments here. If it's toned down these days, it's because lawsuits started being successful, not because most of the men realized it was wrong.
posted by King Bee at 7:06 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

My mother graduated summa cum laude from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a mathematics degree in the mid-60's. When she went looking for engineering jobs, she was told by every single company that they would love to have her in the typing pool, and maybe something would eventually open up. At that time all women started as secretaries, no matter what their qualifications - they didn't even ask if she could type, it was just assumed. She became a high school math teacher.

As for advertising, I still remember an incident from the mid-90's (which I guess was a sign of progress, since at least there was a sexual harassment suit) at one of the big agencies in NYC where an account exec came late into a crowded client meeting where there weren't enough chairs and was told by the senior Creative Director that "as long as I've got a face, babe, you'll always have a place to sit." Classy.
posted by Mchelly at 7:13 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

It probably varies with the location and the industry. I asked my parents, who were recent college grads in the oil industry during the early 60s, if Mad Men was accurate in its depiction of sexual harassment. They said that it wasn't at all like their experiences.
posted by John Farrier at 7:14 AM on August 15, 2011

Former plaintiffs employment lawyer here; I used to do a lot of sexual harassment cases. My impression is that the "old-style" sexual harassment depicted in Mad Men very much used to exist, but legal liability helped stamp out its most virulent forms. The one place it can still exist today is in blue collar, majority male environments.

Sexual harassment still happens in all kinds of workplaces today -- less often, but it happens, and it's not really talked about, because the "best" cases (e.g., those involving the most egregious harassment) settle quickly with nondisclosure agreements. Lower-level harassment still unquestionably exists, though, even in white collar environments. I can't tell you how many highly educated, younger professional woman told me at parties about such-and-such older boss who got off on making inappropriate comments to them. But younger women today have more options, and they know that it's not really a Mad Men world anymore where these guys pose a real threat or will actually extort quid-pro-quo sex. So many chose to ignore the harassment and deal with the discomfort, knowing that they will probably cause more problems to themselves by complaining. I found that infuriating, but I couldn't really argue with the rationale, actually.
posted by yarly at 7:15 AM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

My mom was born in the late 40s, so she was joining the workforce in the Mad Men era.

Her father forbid her to take any typing classes at all when she was a teenager. This was because, in his experience, if a potential employer discovered you could type they would make you a secretary, and you'd be trapped at the bottom of the ladder.

Looking back, she's pretty sure he was right.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:31 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Every woman I've talked to that's a decade or two older than me describes far, far worse than anything I've seen on 'Mad Men.'

Also, you know: Once in New York City there was an office with only three people with the same title. The two men were paid the same, to the dollar; the woman was paid 20% less. Exact same duties, exact same title, and if they hadn't compared notes, they would never have known. That was in 2006. (At an office where men were given bonuses if they "started a family" and management griped about the idea of any women possibly going off on (the incredibly limited) maternity leave.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:47 AM on August 15, 2011

"women are still excluded from some of the highest decision-making groups in corporations...often because the men have their important meetings in a strip club or such things."

A couple of folks have mentioned how sexism is still alive and well today and I need to comment on this.

I live this every day. I was just at a tradeshow last week where I was reminded that although my employer hired me back from a competitor, paid a premium to get and keep me because of my knowledge, my talents and my connections - has essentially done that just to keep me from others.

Even though for my product line I'm the one who does all the analysis, who can tell them without a shadow of a doubt what will work and what won't and how to position a product, who told them four years ago before I left them that they needed to seriously consider a re-branding and consolidation, that they needed to look for less expensive ways of attracting customers, etc., they are the ones making the decisions. They are making them based on who takes them to the best steakhouse, gets them tickets to the game, buys them the most lap dances and who makes sure they get laid at the end of the night.
posted by FlamingBore at 7:59 AM on August 15, 2011

My mom was a hospital nurse in the early and mid-60s, and yes, it could be like Mad Men and worse. (But hey - progress! By the early 1970s, she could open a bank account in her own name, without her husband's permission or long as she brought in the divorce decree, to prove she had no husband!)
posted by rtha at 8:01 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just try to avoid the automatic "Come on, it can't have been that bad!" reflex. It was.

Oh no, I certainly didn't intend to come off that way. It's just hard for me to understand people wanting to act that way. That sounds naive I know but it's just hard to get my head around why anyone would want to be...frankly, such dicks. I have to wonder how many men at the time either grudgingly went along with it or (I would hope) openly protested that sort of treatment.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:14 AM on August 15, 2011

Anecdote, friends' mother who worked as a secretary to the kind of firms shown on the show in Rhe early 60s says it's pretty on the nose.
posted by The Whelk at 8:17 AM on August 15, 2011

Another anecdote: My grandmother tied a young man in her high school for the highest academic average, in competition for the one university scholarship they awarded every year. The award went to the young man, because that's just how that worked. It wasn't even a question.
posted by mhoye at 8:38 AM on August 15, 2011

That sounds naive I know but it's just hard to get my head around why anyone would want to be...frankly, such dicks.

This sounds much bossier than I mean it to, but they're only self-evidently dicks to us, from our perspective, precisely because of the social, cultural, political, and legal changes that happened because of the women's movement and that we (men and woman alike) have grown accustomed to. It's certainly true that not all men were dicks and that not all men would have acted like dicks given the chance, but it's also just as true that this dickish behavior was simply considered far more normal, inevitable, and -- oh, haha, boys will be boys! -- harmless than we consider it now.

Another little anecdote. When I was born, the doctor came out to my dad in the waiting room (no father's in the delivery room back in those days, of course!). His first words to my father were, "Mr. Cody, I am so sorry."

My dad panics. Did I die? Did my mother die giving birth to me??

The doctor is puzzled by my dad's reaction. "Oh no. It's just that it's another girl. I'm so sorry. You'll have to try again."
posted by scody at 9:27 AM on August 15, 2011 [9 favorites]

Early 1960s: my mom, a diplomat with a Master's degree, had to quit her job because she got married.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:44 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mom worked at the phone company in the early 1960's. She had the experience of training a new male hire, who four months later was promoted to be her boss.

The partner at my last firm recounted that, when she started as an associate at a Big Firm in the early 80's, there was an attorney there who routinely groped all the female associates. They complained to the partners, who waved it off with "oh, he's harmless, boys will be boys" kind of thing.

That pattern of behavior continued until the day he did it to a female client (who was getting her own coffee, thankyouverymuch.) Only then did they fire him.

At the first law firm I worked out out of law school, I was ostensibly assigned to a partner who never gave me a single task. When I commented on this to a fellow female associate, she replied "you never will- he does not work with women. Ever." And there was another partner who, when obliged to have a couple of female associates assigned to him, started holding his meetings in the mens' room.

That was 1998.
posted by ambrosia at 9:50 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This has been very illuminating.
And while I get it.
I just. dont. get. it.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 9:59 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is a work of fiction, but from all I understand it really reflects the experiences of women working in corporate NYC (publishing) in the 1950s. I could hardly believe it myself - I knew there was sexism in the workplace, of course, but the level of open, egregious harrassment - taken in stride and even adapted to by the women workers-- was still a surprise. A fascinating read.
posted by Miko at 10:05 AM on August 15, 2011

This is not related to the Mad Men world, but it gives an example of the sexism of the time. Sandra Day O'Connor graduated from Stanford Law school in 1952 and was, by all accounts, staggeringly accomplished. I can't determine if they ranked students beyond the valedictorian (who was William Rehnquist. Yeah, that guy), but absolutely everyone in her class agree that if she wasn't #2 then she was right behind whoever that guy was.

She couldn't get a job as a lawyer. Because she's a girl. One of the top graduates from one of the top law schools in the country and she got offered a job as a law secretary.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:59 AM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: Was it because men genuinely believed women were some stunted "other" kind of person?
I mean, I know I clearly came of age after all this and being raised mainly by women (as a lot of my generation were) the whole thing just seems really head-scratchy to me but I would like to think that if I had lived back then I would be enlightened enough to not be such a tool to the other sex.
Well I would hope so anyway.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:12 AM on August 15, 2011

I was too young in the sixties to be aware of how women (or most people in general) were treated, but I was aware by the mid-seventies of how a lot of humor (or "humor" if you prefer) that dealt with women had a really bitter, even furious tone to it, about how you couldn't do X anymore because some "libber" (probably a lesbian!) would call you on your bullshit. This is one of the more egregious examples.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:14 AM on August 15, 2011

Was it because men genuinely believed women were some stunted "other" kind of person?

Well, yes. In 1873, the US Supreme Court wrote in a concurrence to Bradwell v. Illinois that women could not be lawyers because "the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life... The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”

The view that women are "unfit for the occupations of civil life" took a while to be dispelled, and still exists in remnants.
posted by yarly at 11:25 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the same thing that happened to Sandra Day O'Connor happened to Justice Ginsberg. They were both pushed into public service by the fact that private firms would not hire them.
posted by yarly at 11:29 AM on August 15, 2011

I meant to follow up on yarly's comment above: lawyers seem to have the odd misfortune of not benefiting from the general improvement in workplace conduct. Nothing makes an attorney unemployable faster than suing her firm. I know more than one woman with sterling credentials and work history who are now working as solo practitioners after suing their firms, and winning-- but not winning enough to never have to work again. Unless you have a Rena Weeks-type of case, you think twice. (And note she was an admin, not an attorney.)
posted by ambrosia at 11:48 AM on August 15, 2011

Was it because men genuinely believed women were some stunted "other" kind of person?

My training in history tells me that the answer to this is yes. It's part of patriarchical society to believe in the inherent superiority of men, which by necessity means the inferiority of women, and over time there have been innumerable efforts to rationalize the exclusion of women from full humanity for reasons biological/physical (nature suited them for mothering only, not for other business; they are smaller, weaker, have different proportions, etc) and intellectual (their brains developed differently, they are flighty, stupid, unfocused, bad at math, impractical, good at giving love and affection but not much else); emotional (they are moody, have bad tempers, and are influenced by hormones).
posted by Miko at 12:03 PM on August 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

You might enjoy reading some books on second wave feminism to get a sense of the context and history. The World Split Open is an interesting look at the evolution of the movement (especially its connection to the civil rights movement).
posted by aka burlap at 12:18 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: So when they call it "second wave" I assume "first wave" is like the suffragette period?

Thanks for the recommendations. I'll def me checking these out.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 12:22 PM on August 15, 2011

So when they call it "second wave" I assume "first wave" is like the suffragette period?

Yep, pretty much. In trying to think of other good books to recommend to you, I googled "feminism syllabus," and came across some rich-looking lists, including this one. Time to nerd out!
posted by aka burlap at 12:33 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

So when they call it "second wave" I assume "first wave" is like the suffragette period?

Yes, exactly -- it's the period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly in Britain, the U.S., and Canada, of women (and sympathetic men) fighting for women's basic legal recognitions (the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to custody of children in case of divorce, etc.). In the mid-19th century, it was frequently linked with the anti-slavery movement as well. Its roots can be traced in part back to Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).
posted by scody at 12:36 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

lawyers seem to have the odd misfortune of not benefiting from the general improvement in workplace conduct.

Absolutely agree. Law firms still have a high percentage of crusty jerkfaces and young female associates who know that a lawsuit is more trouble than it's worth, because their careers at the firm are so highly dependent on the good favor of partners. Although at times, the partnership does rally to boot out a parter -- but I suspect that's because the partner might be getting unproductive. Severe harassers often have some kind of co-occuring personality disorder, mental illness, or addiction, so there are other reasons to want to get rid of them. On the other hand, I do think that even law firm culture is turning the tide as the ranks of female partners grow. The problem is that law firms are just crappy places to work now, harassment or no ...
posted by yarly at 1:03 PM on August 15, 2011

One more anecdote and hten I've got to go to work - in the mid 90s I was working where the advertising manager was notorious for harassment; he would have been in his late 40s or early 50s, I guess, and the general manager was a close buddy, a bit older.

One of the cases was of a young woman in the advertising team who was Indian; he sent her a box of soft-centre chocolates with a note saying, "These chocolates are like you, brown on the outside, but delicious and pink on the inside". She got $20k and a job elsewhere in the company, he didn't get fired. He eventually left the company after a woman was incensed enough to take it to the lawyers, whereupon the parent company got involved and the friendship with the GM no longer protected him - but said GM made it clear to lawsuit lady her career was over as far as he was concerned.
posted by rodgerd at 1:21 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the late 80s/early 90s I worked for 8 summers at a summer camp where, one summer, through voluntary disclosure, the counseling staff all collectively figured out that the men were paid a few hundred dollars more, on average, than the women, for no additional qualifications.

It was very easy to control for other factors there so it was an excellent case study. For instance, there was what was called a "base wage,", generally $800-1000 based on your age with older being worth more, then an annual increase of $100 per year of experience, $100 for being a lifeguard, $50 for current First Aid/CPR, etc. When you'd sit down to do your hiring paperwork, the director would list all this out and it seemed pretty formulaic, so we generally just assumed that everyone who was 19 years old and a lifeguard with 2 years of experience got $1450 for the summer (or whatever). It seemed fair and straightforward. We of course assumed that what was offered as "base wage" was the same for everyone of the same age, when in fact, "base wage" turned out to be variable on more than just that disclosed factor, and it varied consistently by $2-300 based on gender alone.

A small delegation of us went to ask the director about this. He was pretty unapologetic. He always prided himself on being a bit of a negotiator and wheeler-dealer, and he just considered this one more instance of same. "I need to make the budget work, so I pay people the minimum that they will agree to in order to work here," he said. "The minimum just tends to be higher for the men. If you want more, it's up to you to ask for it." In other words, over the years he had found that his offers to men would be declined unless they were improved a few hundred bucks, whereas women accepted the offer without negotiating. It was a real-life instance of something I know still happens in many workplaces, but rarely can you find it so clearly demonstrated and cut-and-dried.

Sue him? Naaah. At that time my take on it was "I'm 19, it's a few hundred bucks, I'm not gonna sue my summer camp. I want to work there again next year." I just know now to ask for 2 grand next time. But I never would have known, had we not asked. You tend to assume the playing field is level - not a safe assumption, as I learned at that tender age.

The director was (and is) otherwise a really wonderful person. He just felt it was reasonable that men would be worth more than women.
posted by Miko at 1:50 PM on August 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

Somebody linked to an Australian Public Service publication above, but that one is very mild compared to some of the statements collected in Lifting and Raising the Marriage Bar.

If you don't have the time or inclination to read the whole thing, the money shot is in the following three reasons for not hiring women provided by the Assistant Director for the Department of Trade in 1963:

- A man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife, who also looks after much of the entertaining. A woman Trade Commissioner would have all this on top of her normal work.

-ƒ If we engaged single graduates as trainees, most of them would marry within 5 years.

-ƒ A spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing of the years. A man usually mellows.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 2:19 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mad Men depicts the fairly small, flat organization of a mid-60's NYC ad agency, where the culture involved a lot of business entertaining, and where all the people and business functions were concentrated in a pretty rarefied hothouse of business practice. I worked for a much larger AMEX listed company in Boston in the early '70s, and what was common practice there was a much less visible, much more highly structured kind of heirarchy, that determined men's and women's roles. In our company, we had female employees in jobs everywhere from the factory floor (metal working mostly, as we made industrial machinery, and machine tool sets), to the excecutive suite. On the factory floor, women worked as inspectors, inventory and control clerks, runners (people who took change orders, drawings, and written instructions/specs out to the manufacturing floor, and brought back signed acknowledgement tickets from department supervisors and machinists), cost accountants, time study clerks, and sometimes, as craft people (electricians, control electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, etc.). But I don't think we ever had a female machinist, or a welder, or a shop floor department supervisor or manager, while I was there, mostly because of the extensive trade school or college engineering background that those jobs required. We may have had a female heat treat technician, but that was only because we did a lot of non-standard materials heat treat, that required a lot of OJT - there wasn't much advantage to taking trained heat treat people out of other metal shops, so we mostly trained our own.

In the Engineering Department, we had a female draftsman (among 15 other male draftsmen), several female clerks in document control and copying, and several women checkers (people who took prototype parts back from manufacturing, and checked them against client specs and samples, and made annotations from manufacturing back to master drawings, when needed, after Engineering approval). No female designers, no femal engineers, no female engineering technicians, mainly because of education requirements.

Upstairs, in the Executive and Sales suite, things operated a bit more like Mad Men although, in our Parts Sales Department, Accounting, and Payroll, which were the first departments to become computerized on IBM 360 level hardware, women were about as likely to take the new computerized jobs, as were men, even though, early on, the computer jobs were all basically just key punching data out of our catalogs and paper systems into the computer database. A lot of the most experienced men in our Parts department, for example, had come out of Manufacturing, done some time as traveling field service reps or salesmen, and had learned both their telephone skills, their customer relations skills, and their expertise with the big 18,000 page flip catalogs that we maintained, through long experience. Before computerization, the knowledge they maintained in their heads, and the master catalog system, with Engineering backup for detail and customer tooling drawings, was essential to doing business by phone with customers around the globe. And the 10 guys who sat in the Master Catalog room in the Parts Department, and took internal calls from our sales and service people, and external calls from customers they'd known for years, while scooting around on wheeled chairs like they were choreographed, without ever tangling phone cords, were definitely all Princes of the Company, and knew they were. They even had their own gold piped, dark blue barber jackets to set them apart. It took years to computerize all our parts records however, and most of the data entry was done by women key punch personnel, who, as the Princes retired, and the use of data search kind of replaced their knowledge, took over the Parts operation. But probably into the late '80s, I'd still wish, and often had customers comment, how much faster and better it was to order from us, back in the day, when you could just call one of the Princes, and get your part numbers and prices, right away. Early '80s data search sucked. I often called 1 or 2 of the retired Princes from the field, well into the early '90s, and it was true that more than half the time, they beat the computer at headquarters on old part number/description retrievals, by just closing their eyes and thinking out loud with me, over the phone. That always tickled them, hugely, and I made sure they stayed in lobsters and cigars at Christmas and birthday times.

But out in the Executive suite, and in the Sales offices, the roles women and men played were more recognizably Mad Men like, although our company being set in Boston, the drinking was a little more clandestine, and the sex somewhat less overt. Still, at the top of the pecking order, the Executive secretaries were sometimes called "work wives" out of their hearing; they dressed impeccably, and most had company paid charge accounts at Filene's, to do so. The had weekly hair and manicure appointments, and they generally had some college education or "business" school. Most had worked for their bosses for many years, their careers linked with, and following those of their boss. Once an executive found his "girl," such pairings were generally as long or longer lived than real marriages. Real wives and executive secretaries knew different sides of the same man, and just as on Mad Men, generally kept cool relations for decades, based on little things like the real wife generally knowing that her birthday gifts were being picked out by the secretary, and the secretary knowing more about the executives whereabouts on the road, than the wife typically would. The secretary was going to hear from the executive every working day, come hell or high water, whereever he was, whatever he was doing; the wives couldn't always say the same.

Down the pecking order hierarchy from the Executive secretaries, were the steno pool "girls." I'm not just using the word "girls" here as a some sexist quote from the past - that's what these women called themselves, partly to distinguish themselves from the older, more formal, and often personally critical women who were the Executive secretaries. The steno "girls" were a group of about 10 women who handled the Sales executives that happened to be in the office on any given day, took dictation, took overflow document projects from the Executive secretaries, and made requests for paper files to and from Records department. In those pre-computer days, most businesses did, literally, tons of paper shuffling every day, and it was mostly women who were digging through all that paper, filing it, retrieving it, copying it (when photocopiers became common), mimeographing some of it that had to circulate widely, and faxing it (when fax machines started being real business tools, and not just newspaper photo transmission oddities). The steno girls were generally younger than the executive secretaries, and as I recall, some of the first to overtly object to some of their job requests, like making and getting coffee for Sales execs, or doing errands for Sales execs at lunchtime. And the steno girls really resented some of the perks that they knew the Executive secretaries got, like the Filene's charge accounts, not that any of the steno girls would have been caught dead in a skirted business suit and high heels, back in those days. The steno girls were mostly from the first generation of American women to self-describe as feminists, and although that job level paid well, better than many of our manufacturing floor jobs, turnover was pretty high. Although most of the steno girls I knew thought of themselves as career women, a surprisingly high percentage left to get married, or to have kids, rather than to move on to better jobs, even at other companies.

Down the pecking order from the steno pool girls were the copier operators, and the phone operators, the receptionists, and the Records clerks, although there were probably 10 times as many women in those jobs, around headquarters, than were in the steno pool. At the bottom of the job hierarchy were the cafeteria women, the cleaning and janitorial staff, and often, temps. It may sound funny now, but in those days, women working temporary jobs, through agencies, were often suspect by other women with regular employment. Going from one job to another, a few weeks here, and then there, wasn't really done, if women could get regular employment, probably because being a temp worker exposed a woman to more interest from men in the workplace, and gave her less cover from her female co-workers.
posted by paulsc at 2:29 PM on August 15, 2011 [18 favorites]

paulsc, thanks for the detailed recollections of the hierarchies even among women -- really interesting to read, and useful to keep in mind in looking back at that period.
posted by scody at 3:02 PM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: Sorry guys, you all did wonderfully and I have learned volumes just because of this very thread (and plan to learn much more ALSO as a result of this thread) but paulsc is the winnnnnar!

Also we are all winners here today. Sniff.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 3:11 PM on August 15, 2011

Another small data point: until at least the early '70s, in schools Home Economics classes (and back then 'Home Ec' meant lessons in cooking, sewing, sometimes makeup!, what was sometimes called the "home arts") was only for girls, and Shop classes (anything with tools, like woodworking or auto mechanics or such) was only for boys --- girls were not ALLOWED to take Shop, nor boys Home Ec. My mother (born 1929) told me that schools used to require all girls to take Home Ec and all boys to take Shop, although at least by the late '60s it was optional, if still sex-segregated. In 1969, I tried to take a high school Drafting class: I was laughed at, because that was one of the boys-only courses.

(After her death, I found a photo of my grandmother participating in a 1919 march for women's voting rights: I tend to think "thanks, Grandmom!" every time I cast my ballot..... )
posted by easily confused at 3:23 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check out Fred Strebeigh's Equal: Women Reshape American Law if you're interested in what it was like to try to get "sexual harassment" even acknowledged as a legitimate problem, much less formally recognized by judges and the legal system. IIRC there's one first-person perspective from one clerk about brainstorming with her colleagues regarding what the hell this problem should even be named. ("Sexual...importuning?" "Workplace...inappropriateness?" They came up with better suggestions than these, but you get the idea.) I think about all the work they had to do so that I and future generations have recourse for that bullshit, and I thank God for their guts and determination.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:26 PM on August 15, 2011

"... Another small data point: until at least the early '70s, in schools Home Economics classes (and back then 'Home Ec' meant lessons in cooking, sewing, sometimes makeup!, what was sometimes called the "home arts") was only for girls ..."


In '65, I tried to sign up, as a boy, for Home Ec at my high school in a Northeast Kansas small town, and was told, in no uncertain terms, that That Wasn't Going To Happen. I asked my Shop teacher, Mr. Hogue, why I wasn't allowed to take Home Ec, as I was pretty interested in cooking, and hoped to learn more about that, and he said that as a member of the Home Ec class, I'd have to take Hygiene. I kind of knew what he was talking about, but I didn't argue much, and went out for football, in addition to band, instead. As an underclassman, I played in the marching at home football games, which was an OK compromise for those years, and later, on the varsity, when it was impracticable to change out of sweaty football uniforms into stinky band uniforms, to have continued with the marching band half time shows, I was, by then, perfectly happy to leave my sax in the case for the chance to legally hit people hard enough to put them on their asses, every Fall Friday night.

But for years, any mention of Hygiene made me slightly nervous, like I might not be smart enough to understand such a difficult, sexually shrouded topic.
posted by paulsc at 3:59 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

To single out 60's America as particularly egregious seems unfair.
While women have always been discriminated against in many different ways, 1960s America really was particularly bad for women in the workforce, in several ways. For example, from a recent New Yorker article on Betty Friedan's “The Feminine Mystique”:
By many of these measures, women were worse off in 1963 than they had been in 1945, or even in 1920. In 1920, fifteen per cent of Ph.D.s were awarded to women; in 1963, it was eleven per cent. (Today, it is just over fifty per cent.) Forty-seven per cent of college students were women in 1920; in 1963, thirty-eight per cent were women. (Today, fifty-seven per cent of college students are female. Come on, guys! You can do it!) The median age at first marriage was dropping: almost half of all women who got married in 1963 were teen-agers. And the birth rate for third and fourth children was rising: between 1940 and 1960, the birth rate for fourth children tripled.

Demographically, it looked like a snowball effect. When sixteen million veterans, ninety-eight per cent of whom were men, came home, in 1945, two predictable things happened: the proportion of men in the workforce increased, as men returned to (or were given) jobs that had been done by women during the war; and there was a big spike in the birth rate. But what should have been a correction became a trend. Fifteen years later, the birth rate was still high, and although many women came back to work in the nineteen-fifties, segregation by gender in employment was greater than it had been in 1900, and was more sharply delineated than segregation by race. Classified job ads in the Times were segregated by gender, a practice that didn’t end until 1968.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:06 PM on August 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

That sounds naive I know but it's just hard to get my head around why anyone would want to be...frankly, such dicks.

Try getting out of your frame of reference.
Let's imagine a future world, where the views of PETA are the norm, and animals (like corporations today) have full human rights. We're all mammals after all. we all bleed, we all fear and love and play and die.

It's a radically different worldview. To someone alive today, yeah sure, animals have some rights, and should be treated well - as animals mind - but well. But come-on - the natural order of things is that we're this, and they're that.

In the eyes of those people, you've probably been a right dick yourself - and when you did it, you thought you were being nice.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:09 PM on August 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

> it's just hard to get my head around why anyone would want to be...frankly, such dicks.

As others have said, they didn't think they were being dicks. Furthermore, none of their fellow men thought they were being dicks, and those women who did think that wouldn't have dreamed of saying so. And it was a "man's world" in the most literal sense: men owned everything and determined everything important, and of course they enjoyed the situation and its perquisites. Men fought like hell against second-wave feminism, accusing feminists of being man-haters, lesbians, etc. (and, sadly, many women went along with those attitudes, fearful of rocking the boat), precisely because they did not want to give up the power and privileges they had, much as whites in the South fought against civil rights for blacks. Sure, we can look back now and say comfortably that everybody wins when everybody has more rights, but that's not how it looked to most people at the time.

-harlequin-'s comment (about a world where the views of PETA are the norm) is right on the money.
posted by languagehat at 5:06 PM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: yeah thanks -harlequin- that really helped.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 6:02 PM on August 15, 2011

My single mom (two kids still at home out of five) was the one chosen to be laid off instead of her incompetent co-worker because "he had a family to support". Because of this decision my younger brother and I were homeless for the second time in our lives. This was in 1982.
posted by deborah at 6:31 PM on August 15, 2011

We use the term "suffragists" now instead of "suffragettes," since the latter always was intended to be, and still is, insulting.
posted by Prayless at 7:08 PM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. To be honest until just now I never dissected the word and recognized the "ette" part for being an "ette"
posted by Senor Cardgage at 7:42 PM on August 15, 2011

Anecdote from an ex-colleague who started in a corporate career in the mid-60s, back when slim dresses zipped up the back were standard summer fashion; a favourite pastime of male colleagues was to unzip her dress whilst walking past, with most kudos given to anyone who could do it without her noticing so the dress fell off if she moved. And if she didn't act as if it was just a light-hearted joke, things got unpleasant.

Even now, like a lot of people here, I've had experiences with old dudes doing stuff like not speaking to me even though my (male) colleague has specifically told them that I'm the expert in the particular field they're asking about. In my field I have to deal with a lot of old retired guys. Sometimes they'll address themselves to my male colleague and ask all their questions of him, even though I am the person who answers. I don't think it's deliberate, it's just force of habit because that was The Way Things Were for most of their working lives. And just the other day a female friend who works in publishing was telling me about a recent sales meeting she attended; the three men who attended were invited out to a bar, the three women were not.
posted by andraste at 9:06 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a tangential point: I have recently begun noticing how many of the TV shows I watched as a child growing up in the 1970s featured episodes or comedy sketches which were all about how terrible it would be If Women Ran the World.
posted by andraste at 9:11 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

> In '65, I tried to sign up, as a boy, for Home Ec at my high school in a Northeast Kansas small town, and was told, in no uncertain terms, that That Wasn't Going To Happen

In 1977-ish, at a British-run school in Finland, my teacher told us that girls had to do ballet but boys didn't. "That's not fair!" I said. "You're right," she agreed, and on the spot changed her mind and said that anybody could do ballet, or could skip it.

That was right around the time I was wearing a Ms. T-shirt to school. I'm still proud of little me.

P.S. I still know the ERA by heart.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:34 PM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

A female politician interviewed on NPR within the last year related how after she gave a speech a man came up to her and let her know he liked what she had to say, but wouldn't vote for her because of her "monthly issue". Her response was that she was going through it right then, did that change his opinion of how she had presented herself?

My uncle was able to convince Hamilton High School in west LA to let him take Home Ec in the late 60's. I don't know how much flak he received for this; he had other family issues going on at the time.
posted by brujita at 10:52 PM on August 15, 2011

until the Republic of Ireland joined the Common Market (now European Union) in 1973 they had a Marriage Bar in the Civil Service. A woman could not continue her employment in a government job once married. Many banks had similar bars.

Obviously the Roman Catholic ethos of the Republic played a part but it was sexism pure and simple.
posted by Wilder at 5:46 AM on August 16, 2011

Of course, considering the number of people asking "how do I cook something?" questions here and the resurgence of DIY, maybe Home Ec and Shop classes weren't so terrible. Most people in the 60s and 70s weren't feeling terribly oppressed--girls could dress like Annie Hall and get laid, and pubic waxing was known--I could argue that today's standards are more oppressive.
And yes, women didn't participate in the workforce as much, but no every single woman wanted to work. Sounds like heresy, but it's true. My own mother did, and most of my friends' moms dropped in and out of part-time jobs. I think that it's way too easy to rely on academic studies, when really, first person narratives written by ordinary people are far more useful.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:04 PM on August 16, 2011

maybe Home Ec and Shop classes weren't so terrible

Home Ec and Shop classes are great ideas. Compulsory attendance on one class or the other based on gender is a terrible idea.

Most people in the 60s and 70s weren't feeling terribly oppressed--girls could dress like Annie Hall and get laid, and pubic waxing was known

That's an unusual standard for equality you've got going there.

And yes, women didn't participate in the workforce as much, but no every single woman wanted to work.

Have you read the rest of this thread? Story after story of women who wanted to work -- women like my own mom -- but who legally were not allowed to? About people in the '60s and '70s who yes, were feeling terribly oppressed, despite their lush public hair?
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:32 PM on August 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Oddly enough, I just caught the 1967 musical/comedy "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" on TV again this afternoon. Give it a watch, and look for what we now see as casual, unthinking sexism throughout. Every single junior or senior executive is male; every single female is either in the 'steno pool' or a secretary with no expectations of promotion, or the (elderly) head honcho's brainless-bimbo mistress. The men range in age from young to old, skinny to fat; the only woman who is not a skinny-twenty-something is a matronly (for movies of that era, she'd probably be called fat) fifty-something who would most likely be considered A Battle-Ax Spinster. Musical numbers include "A Secretary is Not a Toy"; the hero's girlfriend --- one of those twenty-ish secretaries --- is mainly there to sing songs like "I Believe in You" and give him moral support.

Keep in mind that this is not a movie about "the battle of the sexes": it's just a light comedy that happens to be set in a corporation's offices.
posted by easily confused at 5:48 PM on August 16, 2011

I think that it's way too easy to rely on academic studies, when really, first person narratives written by ordinary people are far more useful.

Well, that's pretty much what we've got here - anecdata, all from women who wanted to do [thing] were not allowed to do [thing] because of their gender. Men, too, for that matter, who wanted to do traditionally "female" things (like learn to cook, or sew).

My 7th and 8th grades (late 70s) had home ec and shop, and everybody took both (home ec was usually in the morning, which meant that if we made pizza, the slices got cold sitting in our lockers until lunchtime - we ate them anyway). Sex ed was taught in separate, gender-segregated classes.
posted by rtha at 5:54 PM on August 16, 2011

As a tangential point: I have recently begun noticing how many of the TV shows I watched as a child growing up in the 1970s featured episodes or comedy sketches which were all about how terrible it would be If Women Ran the World.
posted by andraste at 9:11 PM on August 15 [1 favorite +] [!]

I always took those, as well as the Eddie Murphy "A Day as a White Guy" sketch, as a reduction to absurdity. You take an ignorant stereotype and amplify it to show how ridiculous it is.

Kind of like how when Laugh In did their "News of the Future!" bits, and the big joke was "In 1988, President Ronald Reagan, [huge laughter]..."
posted by gjc at 7:01 AM on August 17, 2011

Corpse--yes, I read the rest of the (long on anecdotes) thread. I offered a different POV. It's not personal.
rtha--most of the anecdata here was from people not talking about their own direct experience, but rather that of others.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:51 PM on August 18, 2011

rtha--most of the anecdata here was from people not talking about their own direct experience, but rather that of others.

Well, I'd get my mom to tell you herself, but she's been dead 15 years. I can tell you that she told me that she did not feel terribly liberated in the 1970s. Which is kind of a strange point to make, honestly - why were "women's lib" and the civil rights movement such a thing if "Most people in the 60s and 70s weren't feeling terribly oppressed"?

Your point about how we rely too much on academic studies struck me as odd, given the almost complete lack of them mentioned in this thread. OP wanted personal stories, and that's what people offered. Not all of them were the "first person narratives written by ordinary people" that you wanted more of, but there were more of first-person narratives than there were mentions of academic studies.
posted by rtha at 3:20 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

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